Friday, February 13, 2015

Taboo (no, the fun kind)

While there are lots of taboos to worry about when speaking a new language in a new place with a new culture, that's not what we're going to talk about today.
First, I want to tell you a story.
One day I made limoncello. I couldn't get anything really high octane, so I had to stick with vodka. Meh. That's beside the point. The point is I had made a big batch and needed to get that big batch out of a giant jar and into bottles, but I hadn't been in my new place very long and there were many necessary things I still didn't have, not to mention a funnel. So I went off to buy one.
Now, there's something I also need to preface this story with. While I quite love the Chinese dictionary app I use, I have found that a lot of the words and phrases in it are colloquially mainland-Chinese, not Taiwanese, so while I'll use it for reference purposes or run something by a friend before I use it (or use it to look up the pronunciation of a character, obviously) it isn't my go-to for everything Chinese, especially for obscure words or phrases that won't be used in any revealing context. (Chinese phonology is so limited that there are many many many many homophones, even after taking tones into consideration, so context plays an important part in a lot of communication [at least for me]).
Anyway, I can't remember if I looked up how to say 'funnel' in Chinese and didn't trust the dictionary or didn't yet have said dictionary on my phone at the time (which I think was the case, because I probably still had my old blackberry). In any case, I needed to buy a funnel, and after looking around for a while and not finding one on my own, decided I would have to break down and ask.
But what do you do when you don't know how to ask for the thing you need? Something as simple as a funnel would be easy enough to draw, but that's not what happened. Any ideas?

Think of the game of taboo. It's a game that's much easier when you know someone really well, and have inside jokes and memories and code words and things to build from, but the idea is that you have to get the person to say a specific word (i.e. to communicate an idea to them) without using a set of related kind of 'dead giveaway' words related to the target word. It is so much fun.
But really, when you think about it, isn't that challenge in your mother tongue similar

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Is Cereal Soup?

Honestly, there is no real answer. The answer is whatever we agree the answer should be. We make up the words, and we make up the categories. 
This is an interesting idea. Watch the video (and subscribe to the channel and everything else. It's pretty great). This, to me, conjures up thoughts on etymology, psychology, semantics, linguistics, and all sorts of other cool stuff.
In a general sense, many people don't challenge their language. This, at least for me, only happened when I became bilingual, and then when I had to begin to look at my mother tongue as an editor from the standpoint of a native speaker of my second language. Does that make sense? I'm a native English speaker looking at and editing information in my mother tongue, but I now do it from the standpoint of a native Chinese speaker looking at English as their second language. What does that do?
Well, as you will know if you are (at least) bilingual, that ability gives you the perspective to see where and why, for example, Spanish speakers speak English the way they do, or why a certain group of people have certain trouble with certain sounds in English or whatever else. You're then aware of not only your target language's perceived inadequacies, unclear areas, and idiosyncrasies, but starkly aware of the same in your mother tongue.
What this has led me to do is question the wording, the logic, the very foundations of my language, and see that really, so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. We do the best we can as speakers and humans to communicate something effectively, to express ourselves and let our emotions be understood, but with everyone on the same playing field, as native speakers of the same language, there's still so much room for interpretation. For example, a word (the first that came to mind, for whatever reason) like 'angst' may mean "the same thing" to many people, but not all of them would use it in the same contexts or in the same way to express the same thing because it carries different meanings for them or elicits different reactions in listeners. Is there a real difference between

Friday, February 6, 2015

Work through the plateau / Catch a wave

The hard part of a project is the plateau. You flatten out, level off... progress grinds to a seeming halt. But does it?
Like I think I've mentioned here before, it seems that sometimes after 'giving up' and walking away from something for any number of reasons, you forget about it. A few weeks or months (or longer) later, for whatever reason, you pick it back up, out of necessity, nostalgia, or something else, and it seems.... suddenly not so challenging. I mentioned this before in the context of trying to learn to read Urdu. It seemed so complicated and so non-intuitive... I set it aside for a while (because I didn't really need to learn it to begin with), and remember coming back to it a while later and thinking.... this makes so much sense.
Perhaps it was because I saw it from a different angle, or had a more 'big picture' idea, but I am pretty sure it was not because I had done lots of other study on it or had more exposure to it in the interim. That was a passing thought I'd had.
Perhaps my next learning project. We shall see
But I got to talking to a coworker the other day about progress and plateaus, and it struck me that this is kind of a fun thing about learning... as long as you do it continually. Sure, there are plateaus, but pushing through them isn't useless. Rather, it enforces and solidifies what you've already learned. But it seems that plateaus and waves come in cycles, like those moving walkways at an airport. You'll have to walk a hundred yards or so by yourself (and that section is where all the bathrooms and water fountains are), but then there's another walkway, and if you are paying attention, you can take that fast track and make some extra progress for that little section. Have you ever noticed how fast you feel when you walk fast on the moving walkway? Soaring!
In any case, I feel like whether it's music, working out, language, almost anything... progress comes in waves, and it's not even really progress itself. It's the opportunity for progress.
I'm thinking now that I probably should have had a reality-check and run this idea by some others before talking about it, but I feel like I'll have these great inspired stretches of a few months where things come easy (in one endeavor or another, sometimes together) and I feel like I'm making
huge strides in whatever it is (learning Italian, studying composition, adding weight to my squat, whatever) and when you see that, take advantage of it, right? Push a little harder, work a little more, because it seems like it's being handed to you, and you don't know how long it'll last. It's like the Super Star that turns you into Invincible Mario. Don't waste that time, because it's like a superpower, and it won't last. Study, read, speak, take notes, and make your intellectual/musical/linguistic/athletic hay while the proverbial sun shines, because there's another plateau on the way.
I am curious as to what it is that causes this. Perhaps it's just a contrast to the less productive

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

On Talent: Is it Enough?

a discussion with the wonderful Mitsuko Uchida

This woman is just kind of a musical goddess. Not only do I love everything I've heard her play, from Schubert to Schoenberg, I've thoroughly enjoyed everything I've ever seen on YouTube of her discussing music.
"To think that talent is something you are born with is wrong."
I should (have) start(ed) by saying that most of this post comes directly from almost the exact same article on my other blog, but I feel the underlying principles are the same. So go check it out there in the context of music, and read below for my thoughts on the same concepts as they apply to language.
Ms. Uchida is an interesting, passionate, talented, and individual character. She moved to Vienna from Japan with her family when she was very young (her dad was a diplomat or something) and when they moved back, she stayed. I've seen interviews of her in English (obviously), as well as in German and Japanese, something perhaps more worth discussing on this blog than the music one. She still clearly has some Japanese-ish accent, but speaks English as superbly as anyone.
She is a true musician, through and through; it oozes from her when you see her speaking about music, or conducting Beethoven's piano concertos from the piano, or describing Schumann's style of writing. She is one of those few people who I instantly would love to sit and just chat with (or listen to) for days. Passion in interesting.
In this short clip, she makes a few fascinating points. I'd seen this video quite a while back, but hadn't yet come upon the 'right time' to write about it. For some reason, with this week's piece on the music blog, it came to mind, and I wrote it down on my calendar as today's post.
I don't remember exactly what it was about Prokofiev's first sonata that triggered the thought of this topic, perhaps a bit unfortunately, but I think it was something along the lines of making conscious decisions about your career or style or inventing or reinventing yourself and that it isn't always this nebulous, hippie-spiritual journey. Go check out the other blog for that discussion.
But what dictates talent? What I suppose fascinates me the most about this idea is how the four elements Ms. Uchida mentions in the video all kind of interact. They are
  1. Passion ("urgency to have to express one's deep emotions through music and nothing else...")
  2. "Intellectual ability"
  3. "Technical ability"
  4. Charisma

Interestingly, the real crux of the point she is making, I feel, is that the last three (passion aside) can all be acquired, "even charisma," with a study and understanding of music, or in this case, language. One could also perhaps argue, then, that even passion can be 'developed.' As I wrote above,

Friday, January 30, 2015

Idioms: A warning

This article someone posted on Facebook got me to thinking about the richness of language (as well as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, (also perhaps more appealingly referred to as linguistic relativity) which we will address later. In essence, it is the idea that "language determines thought," or more complicatedly:
The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its respective speakers conceptualize their world.
Perhaps nowhere could cultural quirks and habits be better expressed in language than through the idioms that a language uses. There are, of course, fascinating things to be learned from a language by its complicated and very specific words that are practically untranslatable in any other language, perhaps the most complicated (and frankly, I find, beautiful) example of which is 'mamihlapinatapai' which is an experience I'm sure everyone has had, but just lacked the perfect word to express it. Now you have it. 
What image do you use for idioms? "Forgive me!" Rome, Italy, 2010
My purpose here is not to discuss examples of idioms (perhaps I will do that later) or to defend my statement of their cultural significance, but to issue a warning about them.
They are powerful. They are useful. They are expressive. But if you're trying to communicate effectively either in someone else's language or to someone who's trying to understand yours, don't use them.
In fact, I'm not even really only talking about idioms. I'm talking about idioms, idiomatic expressions, collocations, phrasal verbs, or anything else in a language that isn't literal. Translating your own speech into its simplest, most straightforward, grammatically pure equivalent isn't

Monday, January 26, 2015

Know your noises

I was going to spell noises 'knoises' as a joke, but I decided against it.
There was a joke among a few friends of mine in America who thought it was hilarious when using the "A as in..." phrase to use a word that had a silent letter at the beginning, for example:
  • K as in 'knowledge'
  • P as in 'psychic'
  • G as in 'gnat'
It cracked us up. But really, English is a  weird language. And whoever is having something spelled to them usually takes a second to catch on. 
Also, I missed last week's second post, so I'm making up for it here with an article heavy on phonology. I haven't gotten into a groove with this blog like I have with Fugue for Thought (which is having its 200th post at the end of this week, so go check it out [the whole blog, not just that post]). That one's a personal endeavor guided wholly by my tastes in and experiences learning about classical music, and I have most of the posts scheduled out (tentatively) through the end of summer and potentially into the beginning of 2016. This blog? Not yet. I just haven't gotten into a groove aside from "post every Wednesday and Friday except for sometimes." I need some projects. And also, here is a mold of my teeth. It is very yellow. My teeth aren't.

It's cracked because I dropped it once and glued it back together, and also, continue reading to see why this is here. 
In any case, something I was talking to a friend about a few days ago was... well, just sounds. 
If someone understood everything you said in English but couldn't make an English 'L' sound, how would you explain to them how to make that sound? How would you verbalize it? What instructions would you give?
This friend, actually a coworker, and I had spoken previously about the pronunciation of consonants at the ends of words like 'cap', 'cat', and 'stop' and why they're (sometimes) pronounced the

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What language should I learn?

There's an article I remember reading ages ago that addressed this question. You can find that article here, and in it is the original article/study from Mr. Arguelles. Obviously, a need to speak a language for work, etc. will make that decision for you, so we're talking about something a bit different here. I'll explain below, but let's look at four language categories.  
They are: 
  1. Classical languages of one’s own culture.
  2. Major living languages of one’s broader culture.
  3. The international language.
  4. Exotic languages.
So I don't want to steal the thunder or credit of the other people who've already talked about and shared this thought, so I'm not going to go back and brush up on the article, but I remember reading this like, five or six years ago and being impressed with the idea. While I haven't gone bonkers hardcore about studying five or six languages super intently, the idea has been a fascinating one for me, perhaps something to aspire to. 

Now, this approach is, to me, entirely different than addressing a specific necessity (oh the joys of necessity....) Like I've talked about before, if you specifically need to learn a language for a specific purpose, then that's a pretty straightforward course of study with focused goals. Go do that. 
If however, you're more enamored with the idea of study, or if the thought of being multilingual is exciting and exhilarating and you find multilingual people especially inspiring and are jealous of their abilities, then perhaps this is the list for you and will give some interesting direction to your studies. 
The way I see it, its goal is to attain to a level of well-roundedness that will allow you to be pretty competent in most fields either the corner of your interests or backgrounds. 
Think of it this way: if you're packing for a camping trip, you have a pretty good idea of what you'll need. If you're packing for a beach vacation, you have a pretty good idea what you'll need. If you're leaving your house with zero idea where you're going or what you'll be doing, then it makes sense to prepare the most practical, useful, and versatile gear for any of the most probable sets of circumstances. I find this list to be that sort of approach. It's planning way ahead. 
The four categories are, perhaps, a bit TOO thorough for some. For example, classical